7 Thoughts On Editing An Independent Feature Film
start the process broken.
This is how I came to the edit anyway. Bruised, both physically and emotionally. Tired and quite honestly, feeling as though an innocence had been knocked out of me. I sat in front of the computer and felt…fragmented.
I’ve likened making a feature film and particularly this feature film over the last two years, to what I imagine having a baby must be like. I’ve seen many of my female friends have babies and they’re so excited when they fall pregnant and during the pregnancy it’s all they can talk about, but then once they’ve had the baby there’s a sort of hush that falls over them. They keep saying how cute the baby is, how much they love it, but there’s a hesitancy to discuss feelings and to me they always look a little distant from life, as if they’ve just been through something unspeakable (in my opinion a good description of labour as a morbid watcher or birth videos. Don’t judge me! You watch horror films, I watch those)
I don’t want to trivialise parenthood by comparing the two, but I have read many articles where mothers honestly speak out about feeling traumatised by labour and then not feeling able to speak about it because it is tied up so intrinsically with their child. If they admit the labour was traumatic, people might think they don’t love their baby.
This is how I have felt about this film. I love the film. I am genuinely happy with how it came out. There are some things I would want different but overall I’m in awe of this thing we made and I love it.
That said, I came into the editing process feeling strange. I would cry at the smallest thing, all the confidence I used to have seemed to have disappeared into thin air and I wanted to retract into myself. I bummed around in my pyjamas for a week after the shoot, staring into space and asking too many dark and unanswerable questions about life, the universe and me.
I was lucky that I am part of a conference called CEVMA, a media conference for Christians working in media and there I have always been able to be more open than I have anywhere else. I’ve been going since 2008 and I have always found solace there.
The conference took place 10 days after our final shoot day. I took my broken self along, still reeling from everything that had just happened. I had half a feature film already on my phone but I didn’t want to show anyone. I spoke to various filmmakers and directors and as I choked up talking about various aspects of making the film, I saw in the more experienced eyes of those I spoke to an unnamed thing, staring back at me - they had been here, they had the T-shirt and the usb memory stick and the mug.
I returned home somewhat refreshed and ready to start the rest of the editing process. We are currently finished the first pass and I still feel broken. I’m not sure when that will end.
2. take a break between the shoot and the edit
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a director I really respect at CEVMA was “Take a long time before you start editing. If you think you need to start in a week, give yourself two.” What I took away from speaking to other directors about this was 3 weeks to a month after shooting is a good time to take away without touching the edit. You need distance. There are too many human emotions still buzzing around from the shoot.
You’ve been dealing with people and crew and cast. You’ve been organising payments and catering. You have feelings about everything that happened. Unfortunately your feelings are linked to art and you must sort your head and heart out before attempting to begin what is essentially the equivalent of writing a novel.
You need to rest, physically and emotionally and come to your film with fresh eyes.
It took me about three weeks before I sat down to really start the first edit and by that time, though still tired, I felt ready.
3. don’t worry if you hate it all, at first
I always hate everything I shoot when I look at it on the timeline for the first time. It’s almost as though your brain has to re-assess and re-read what you have filmed in the new light of an editing suite. You saw it on the monitor on the shoot and you okayed it. Seeing it on the grey, clinical interface of your editing software feels different. You are calmer so now you notice things you didn’t before and dialogue sounds totally different to how it did when you were filming it.
My poor husband Kevin has become accustomed to the fact that after any shoot I will spend the first few days looking like war is approaching, crying doom and gloom from the rooftops, my face all at once tear-stained and fury ridden, these emotions targeted at myself for not having reached the lofty heights of my fantastical ideals.
Then, somehow, when the storm has calmed and I sit before the computer alone with my tea, my energy burned out from fighting with myself. I watch it all again and Kevin comes in later to find me clucking and coo-ing at the screen, turning my smiling face up at him to say “Isn’t it lovely"?”
I believe environments have a massive effect on the way you interpret something you’re watching. I am sure there is something scientific that someone clever should research but perhaps the way your brain perceives a scene while you are surrounded by cast and crew and nature is different to when you’re alone in front of a computer. I believe this because there is significant change in my perception when I watch something I’ve edited alone to when I watch it with an audience. I believe the energy of a live audience brings things on the screen to your attention that you cannot possibly notice when you’re alone.
4. edit dry first
I made a conscious decision to make my first pass at the edit completely devoid of music, apart from the songs, after all it was a musical. I chose to do this because I wanted to know how each scene sat on it’s own emotionally. I didn’t place any music beds under emotional scenes or anything the first time round. It was only on the second round that I started adding in instrumental music here and there.
It’s a good idea to just cut the scenes together completely as they are. It not only allows you to see what is really there, but it also enables you to come to terms with each scene, not to be afraid of it’s shortcoming.
I don’t know why, but I feel there is something healthy about cutting and reviewing the scenes as if you’re watching a play. Remember that that is not what film is. Whatever purists say, movies rely completely on music to bring them up to a level where they thrill or entertain an audience. There are many out there who like to believe a good performance should stand on it’s own without any instrumental music at all. I think that’s a load of rubbish. Music is not always necessary and you will feel when it is, but a great performance can only ever be made stronger with the right music at the right time.
I cut the whole film first time round without any instrumental music and I feel I have a better grasp and understanding of what I’m dealing with because of it.
5. don’t show anyone before you’re ready
I was surprised by how a lot of people connected with the film wanted to view early edits. I have never been a fan of this. For the same reason a crew wouldn’t like members of the public crowding around the monitors while shooting, I don’t want people’s opinions, ideals and their own view of the story imposing on the edit.
The edit is a delicate process and one of the most important sides of filmmaking. It’s where it comes together and it’s where the film is made or unmade.
I made the mistake of showing early edits to a few people before I was emotionally ready and before the film was ready. I will never make that mistake again. There is no obligation to show anyone anything other than whoever you’ve agreed to show a rough cut to in your contract.
Trust me, if you show anyone a cut of the film before you think it’s ready, you will have lost that person’s first impression and their goodwill towards the film forever. Their only knowledge of your story will be what they saw and everything after that will be tainted by what they saw the first time.
By all means get feedback, by all means ask for help. You will need it and there will be some people you trust, people who can see a rough cut for what it is - a draft. Guard your edit and your heart. You don’t want to be battered around when you are already so raw. The sweetest, most kindest person in your life, the champion of all your efforts up until this point, will become without a doubt a full-blown troll when faced with an early edit of your film.
I think it must be the basest human instinct, to see the flaws in a new piece of work and hound others with them. We immediately feel superior and then we take that superiority and use it to ram the other person down as hard as we can, making ourselves feel all puffed up and grand with the idea we know better. This is why when I am often asked for feedback on short films, I never give all my feedback. I give what I know will help someone grow and am careful not crush a brand new filmmaker who may never try again if hurt too soon.
Most audiences haven’t a clue about editing or can comprehend that a terrible scene that seems awkward and stunted can transform into the most moving moment in a film with skilful editing, music and sound mixing.
The average viewer will not be able to tell you what is needed. All they can do is tell you what is wrong. And that’s as much as you will get from them.
The people I showed never said out loud they didn’t like it. I could just see they look decidedly underwhelmed. That expression (eyes straight ahead, mouth pulled into a neutral smile, trying not to betray any emotion) is enough to kill a filmmaker’s over sensitive spirit. I didn’t have the strength to let it wash over me because I was so tired and spent from making a feature film. So I retreated into myself again, wondering whether keeping chickens and goats would be a difficult job and whether I could live off the eggs and milk they produced, living in a remote countryside hut somewhere, living the rest of my days as a chicken and goat farmer, where rumours of Jay Moussa-Mann the film director would be a forgotten legend, a whisper on the wind.
6. edit to music (once you haven’t)
There came a point in the edit at which I couldn’t edit dry any more. The film was crying out for instrumental music and I found that the more finesse I started to cut with, the more I needed music.
I had always had a sneaking suspicion that I would have to write the score. I have some classical music training and I had written all the songs for the musical. My one worry was that I was already doing so much. Writing, directing, performing, editing. I didn’t care about how much work it was. I was worried about what other people think. I can positively hear the gossip - the girl who is so egotistical that she has decided to make a film and do everything herself. I can see it in people’s faces when they ask me about the film and it slowly comes out that I have taken on these roles. I dread talking about it.
Inevitably, in the end, there was no budget to hire a composer and not enough time to find someone I trusted if there was, so I went to work writing a score.
It’s one of most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.
I would watch a scene, hear the music in my head, take it into my software and compose to it. First with just piano, working out the notes, watching and playing, stopping when necessary.
There was one scene in-particular that, to my horror, when I watched it after the first cut, was devoid of all the emotion it needed. It was a pivotal scene and it was totally dead.
I did some research, watched some other films and on a whim, I took a piece of music from another very similar scene from another film and stuck that music under my scene. Suddenly the whole scene changed. It instantly became touching and almost beautiful and it gave me the direction I needed. I spent a good day or so composing the music for this scene and by the end I was working with shiny scene.
You see, I had always believed and been taught, that if a scene didn’t work without the score, it wouldn’t work with it.
This is I find to be a load of rubbish.
Don’t listen to everything everyone tells you. Most of them haven’t even lived it themselves.
7. if possible, hire out the trailer
This is only something I can say in hindsight. I had no idea editing a trailer would be so difficult and it didn’t help that we hadn’t really checked the dates for delivering the trailer. While working on the feature, I had to take a week out to work on the trailer. I knew when I was working on it that this was not my forte. I am the very image of everything opposite to a business woman. I do not like selling. I don’t like advertising. I can’t bear the thought of presenting a piece of work in anything more than it is. Basically everything a trailer is supposed to do, my character fights against.
What if someone sees the trailer and thinks it’s a better film than it actually is? That was the question I grappled with as I somehow put together my first version of the trailer.
Relieved after completing it, I sent it in and eagerly went back to work on the main film, only to receive an email a few days later with feedback on the trailer.
Reading the feedback sent me into a whirlwind of panic. I tried to set about doing what was asked but I found myself completely floundering. Kevin was busy at work, too busy to sit with me and edit and when he did we ended up arguing. I felt his answer to everything was to use a fade to black and he felt I met every suggestion with an aggressive reason why it wouldn’t work.
Finally, again in tears, I called my dad, the one person I knew who had handled this kind of situation before and who could think logically, unlike I could under the circumstances.
He sat with me, the three pages of feedback in hand and we edited the trailer together until it fit almost the exact requests we had received. I sent it in and only two requested changes came back.
I would have happily handed over the entire trailer production to another editor or company. As it was I lost a week of editing and gained a few days of feeling like a complete failure. Of course, in the end, it all worked out for the best.